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Class Action Status Sought In Lawsuit Against Louisiana’s Defense System

— May 10, 2017

Class Action Status Sought In Lawsuit Against Louisiana’s Defense System

A class action status was sought on Thursday, May 4th, in a lawsuit filed in February against Governor John Bel Edwards and the state’s Public Defender Board by civil rights advocates hoping to force a rebuild of Louisiana’s indigent defense system.  The underlying lawsuit was filed February 6th by attorneys from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and lawyers from the law firms Jones Walker of New Orleans and Davis, Polk & Wardell.  The subsequent motion was filed in the Judicial District in East Baton Rouge.

The motion for class certification in the case argues that Louisiana has allowed the system to fail due to inadequate staffing, overworked employees and funding systems that simply don’t work. Supporters said if the class action request is certified, the ruling would affect approximately 20,000 indigent defendants in the state, making it the largest defense case of its kind thus far.  

Class Action Status Sought In Lawsuit Against Louisiana's Defense System
Image Courtesy of SC Magazine

The motion argues that Louisiana is unable to provide a constitutionally sound defense for most clients under the current system.  “The report we filed today documents what indigent defendants across the state have long known: Louisiana’s public defender system is broken,” Lisa Graybill, deputy legal director of the SPLC, stated.  “This failure has created a two-tiered justice system in Louisiana – one for those with the money for meaningful representation in court and another for the poor, that simply churns them through the system without providing them the meaningful defense required by the Constitution.  Louisiana’s public defense system is underfunded, unmonitored, and wholly inadequate. The failure of the system is a statewide problem, and it calls for a statewide remedy.”

“The local district defenders are limited in what they can do because of their necessary reliance on inconsistent and erratic sources of funding,” said Seattle University law professor Robert Boruchowitz. “These structural barriers make it nearly impossible for most defenders to provide effective representation to most of their clients.  The situation in Louisiana has grown to be so serious that the defenders and judges have come to accept routinely and openly a pattern of practice regarding indigent accused persons that falls well below what the Louisiana Rules of Professional Conduct require and effectively disregards the ethical responsibilities of both lawyers and judges.”

Class Action Status Sought In Lawsuit Against Louisiana's Defense System
Image Courtesy of Kantrowitz, Goldhamer & Graifman, PC

The plaintiffs claim current shortcomings in the state’s public defense system that require immediate attention include staffing public defenders who do not provide timely and confidential communications with their clients and often do not investigate the facts, making it impossible for them to make an informed decision in a client’s case.  The defenders almost never have the funds or ability to summon expert witnesses, and very few of the state’s public defense districts use social workers.

“We simply don’t have the time” to provide clients with the defense they deserve, said Orleans Public Defender’s Office staff attorney Brandi McNeil.  The lawsuit asks a state court to declare Louisiana’s public defenders system ‘significantly compromised’ and appoint a monitor to ensure the necessary changes are made.  


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